No lockdown, no virus – what can the UK learn from Singapore and Taiwan?

Following the vote to leave the European Union, some called for the UK to become Singapore without the sun – referencing its role as a low tax business-friendly country.

Since then, the pandemic has overtaken Brexit as the core business talking point and impacted nearly every economy in the world. But once again Singapore – along with other Asian economies like Taiwan and South Korea- have emerged as examples of best practice for dealing with this crisis.

Interestingly these countries have had fewer lockdowns, fewer Covid cases, fewer deaths, and their economies haven’t been plunged into the red.

So is it time Britain started learning more from these economies and accepting that losing some liberty would be a price worth paying to benefit from some of the spoils that countries like Singapore get through their heavily government-influenced approach that is also pro-business?

Or are we doing fine in the UK thanks and would such government interference in our lives not be a price worth paying and does the size of these countries and their cultural history make a comparison unfair?

Business Leader investigates this question by talking to two academics who have been following the region and their response to the pandemic, compared to the UK.

Opinion – Dr Ben Williams – Salford University

Compared to other island nations which likewise lack directly adjoining land borders, the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been found significantly wanting in some areas.

Particularly in relation to Asian island countries located much closer to the epicentre of the pandemic’s outbreak, the contrast could not be greater. To illustrate this, while as of late February 2021 the UK had registered over 4 million cases and over 100,00 deaths from the virus (and rising), by contrast, the island state of Taiwan recorded than 1,000 cases and only 9 official deaths, while Singapore has experienced 60,000 cases and fewer than 30 deaths.

This steep divergence in such health statistics is maybe even more surprising given the much different proximities of these three countries in regards to the Chinese origins of the outbreak, but there are various explanations for what seems to be a stark and damning comparison.

Serious threat

An initial consideration is that such Asian island nations seemingly took the threat more seriously from the outset in early 2020.

Consequently, countries such as Taiwan, Singapore and others within the broader Chinese sphere of influence reacted more quickly to what was initially a more localised threat, swiftly tightening up their borders and instilling harsh quarantine regulation for those entering the country.

Face-masks were also encouraged to be worn from an earlier stage than much of Europe, acting as an obvious physical obstacle to halting the virus’s spread. The nature of this swift reaction could be linked to direct experiences of the SARS virus in 2003 which primarily impacted this part of the world, while the western world was largely untouched by it.


Use of Technology key

These Asian island states also appeared to have made much better and more effective use of technology as part of a sophisticated testing and tracking system, suggesting better and more generous investment on their part in such technical infrastructure.

Boris Johnson has repeatedly claimed that the British system of track and trace was ‘world beating’, but it has suffered a series of well-publicised problems and failures, and pales into comparison with these global alternatives.

Indeed, Harvard epidemiologists have described the Singapore tracking system as the ‘gold standard’ in the field of virus detection and control, which notably focused on those without symptoms also, consequently further limiting the spread of what was often a symptom-free illness in many cases.

Yet from an angle of cultural difference, some commentators have noted that the extent of such tracking in these countries and its use of personal data involves a degree of surveillance that would possibly infringe human rights and privacy laws in the west, which reflects a contrasting political culture whereby government control and repression is more pronounced and even accepted, while individual rights are less protected.

More authoritarian, better results?

While this would usually be a source of criticism by normative global political standards, in this instance it is arguably the case that more authoritarian-inclined states have dealt with the outbreak better for this very reason, and there have been fewer prolonged lockdowns in such countries as a result.

China is also another obvious regional example as to how to ruthlessly suppress the spread of the virus, while often bypassing civil liberties. Yet as such personal liberties across these Asian nations were already weakened compared to western standards, they have been easier to over-ride and further erode amidst such circumstances.

In fairness to the British government, this could indicate that specific historical, geographical and cultural factors have made the Asian region much better prepared and ultimately more aware of the emerging threats from such a global health crisis, and this was a specific variable that the Johnson administration cannot be directly blamed for.

Prime Minister Johnson also appears to be an instinctive libertarian, being the product of a political environment where personal freedoms are highly valued and protected by long-standing laws. This is a very different culture from much of the Far East, and it has created a dilemma for him in both personal and political terms in how he has dealt with the pandemic over the past year, arguably hindering his reactions in the process.

In the short-term amidst the ongoing duration of this prolonged crisis, Johnson and his ministers have struggled to balance the demands of medical experts with those of backbench MPs and the wider business community who have been obviously concerned about the economic implications. Balancing such health and economic pressures has been a difficult square to circle, and this represents a specific problem for a country like Britain, which unlike the Asian comparative examples has a more deep-rooted history of both economic (free-market) and political (liberal-democratic) freedoms.

Boris Johnson

How has Boris Johnson handled the pandemic?

Anti-lockdown sentiment

There have been significant anti-lockdown protests, a considerable degree of regular dissent and breaches of lockdown rules, and some government MPs have formed the ‘Covid Recovery Group’, which is demanding an end to current lockdown restrictions sooner rather than later.

Although he can point to success regarding the vaccine roll-out, Johnson appears reluctant to depart the current (third) sustained lockdown too soon (as some accused him of doing in late summer 2020), and his government continues to face further difficulties as it seeks to salvage its battered reputation arising from its troubled response to the pandemic, in comparison to the more effective approaches of other island states across the other side of the world.

Opinion – Dr Maria Rana – Salford Business School

According to the latest World Economic Outlook published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) , the estimated contraction of the world economy in 2020 is -3.5%, with advanced economies declining by -4.9% and emerging markets by -2.4%.

The recent roll-out of vaccines gives us hope and reasons to be optimistic about the economic outlook in the near future, with the world economy projected to grow by 5.5% in 2021 and 4.2% in 2022, even if ‘exceptional’ uncertainty remains.

The contraction of the global economy in 2020 is mainly due to the lockdown restrictions that have been widely adopted around the world to contain the transmission of covid-19 and to prevent overwhelming of health systems. The government’s responses to the pandemic, however, have been significantly different between countries, without a clear and consistent approach. This has resulted in some countries being able to control the pandemic better than others, with important implications for their economies.

Efficient test and trace

Several Asian countries, including Taiwan and Singapore, supported by innovative technology, have immediately implemented efficient test and trace systems, imposed face masks, social distancing and border closures, and had robust public health infrastructure.

This is because they already, and relatively recently, experienced severe respiratory diseases such as SARS-CoV-1 in 2003. On the other side, a country like the UK had to face the pandemic after a decade of austerity that has severely affected the NHS. Additionally, the test and trace system has not been particularly efficient, face masks have initially not been imposed, and the borders have been kept open.

As a consequence, while Taiwan never had to go into lockdown and Singapore stopped the lockdown restrictions in June, the UK, having one of the highest death tolls in the world, is still under a national lockdown that will be gradually eased over the coming months but only if it will be safe to do so according to the data.

Due to the mix of national and local prolonged lockdowns since the start of the pandemic, the UK’s national income decreased by 9.9% last year, the highest contraction since record began and one of the worst among G7 economies. The UK’s economy strongly relies on service industries (retail, finance, entertainment, hospitality and tourism, etc.), which in 2019 accounted for 80% of total economic output.

With the UK’s relations with its major neighbour trade partners in Europe negatively affected by Brexit, with high uncertainty on the future of the financial sector also impacted by Brexit, with the high-street already weakened by online competition since before the pandemic, and with hospitality, tourism and leisure industries practically on their knees since they have not been able to open during lockdowns, the extent of the contraction of the UK’s national income does not come as a surprise.

Taiwan experiences strong growth

Taiwan, on the contrary, whose response to the pandemic has been commended, is among the very few that have grown last year. With a GDP growth of 3.11% , Taiwan is in fact the top performing economy in Asia, surpassing China for the first time in 30 years. Thanks to the successful containment of the pandemic, i.e. : 9 deaths and less than 1,000 cases, Taiwan has been able to partially satisfy the thriving global demand for microchips while its major competitors (South Korea, , Japan, China, US and India) where still dealing with outbreaks and tough restrictions, proving to be a reliable supplier when the global supply chains have been disrupted.

The export led economy of the island benefitted from the substantial rise in the demand for semiconductors, used in the production of cars but also computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones, whose demand has surged due to an increasing number of people relying on technology to work from home. Additionally, given the China-US trade war, the mainland has been relying on Taiwan for the provision of semiconductors. Taiwan’s exports increased by 4.9% in 2020, with exports to China accounting for more than 40% of total exports.